Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in Are the Negotiators Korea Needs

Pyongyang's and Seoul’s leaders have shown they can build political capital. Now they have to spend it.

South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myung-Gyun (right) and North Korean chief delegate Ri Son-Gwon exchange joint statements during their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas on Jan. 9.(/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myung-Gyun (right) and North Korean chief delegate Ri Son-Gwon exchange joint statements during their meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas on Jan. 9.(/AFP/Getty Images)

After months of gathering storm clouds, there’s a rare ray of sunshine on the Korean Peninsula. On Tuesday, North and South Korea successfully held high-level talks, offering the first chance for Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in — the leaders of the North and South, respectively — to get the measure of each other. The conference room at the House of Peace in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where the talks are being held, has closed-circuit televisions. Both Kim and Moon almost certainly were observing closely.

Moon and Kim are very different men — one an ardent democrat, the other 30 years his junior, third in a line of dictators. But the two men are also a peculiar reflection of each other: two leaders who faced daunting challenges in their early stages in power yet defied expectations and found political success. Their challenge will now be to craft a deal that can clear the impasse created by North Korea’s continued nuclear and ballistic provocations. That should be possible if both men appreciate the sizable political capital each can leverage in such negotiations.

Perhaps it is not entirely appropriate to refer to Kim’s rule as a “success” — he presides, after all, over a brutal and murderous dictatorship. But in terms of consolidating power domestically while projecting strength internationally, it is more than fair to say Kim Jong Un has achieved much. When his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011, the younger Kim, not yet 28 years old, was a virtual unknown. But Kim Jong Un soon proved to be just as brutal as his father and grandfather. He reinvigorated his country’s oppressive domestic surveillance, which caused the number of North Koreans escaping the country to plummet by nearly two-thirds. Kim also methodically eliminated anyone who might pose a threat to his throne. Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle and the de facto leader of North Korea in the last few years of Kim Jong Il’s life, was abruptly executed in December 2013. Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half brother and the oldest son of Kim Jong Il, was assassinated in February 2017 in a daring attack in Kuala Lumpur.

Externally, Kim Jong Un oversaw North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and atomic weaponry, a stunning achievement that was long considered impossible for such an impoverished country. Combining bellicose rhetoric and weapons testing, such as the August 2017 threat to fire a missile near Guam, Kim has managed to put himself at the top of the list of foreign-policy challenges for the United States — and won for his country a powerful negotiating position for talks.

Kim’s successful purges may complicate the practical aspects of dialogue. Among those killed were the intermediaries North Korea previously relied on to speak with South Korea — such as the late Jang, who even visited Seoul in 2002 during the high point of the inter-Korean relations. Jang reportedly returned to Pyongyang so impressed by South Korea’s economic development that he took with him several pieces of South Korean electronics and copies of the research reports from the Korea Development Institute, a government-run think tank. By contrast, Ri Son Kwon, the head of North Korea’s inter-Korean relations agency, who lead the North Korean delegation this week, has a reputation for being a short-tempered loudmouth. But he will be serving a leader whose intentions in building a nuclear arsenal — and, presumably, in negotiating over it — are clearer (to himself, if not yet to others) than those of his predecessors.

On the other side of the DMZ is Moon Jae-in, whose first eight months as South Korea’s president have been an improbable success. Coming into the Blue House in May, Moon faced a seemingly fragile domestic situation. Partisanship was still inflamed after his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and removed from office following a bizarre corruption scandal involving Park’s spiritual advisor and, among other things, dressage horses.

Meanwhile, following the deployment of the U.S.-made THAAD missile defense system, China had imposed economic sanctions that cost the South Korean economy billions of dollars. Across the Pacific Ocean, South Korea’s most important ally — the United States — had recently elected President Donald Trump, who repeatedly complained about the cost of stationing troops in and trading with South Korea. The conservative press in South Korea sniped at the liberal Moon, criticizing him for poor handling of the U.S.-South Korea alliance at a time when North Korea was causing a global crisis.

Moon handled all this with aplomb. All of Moon’s meetings with Trump have concluded on positive notes, most notably Trump’s Seoul visit in November. Moon also normalized relations with China with remarkable alacrity. After Moon’s state visit to Beijing in December, South Korea and China jointly declared the “four principles for peace,” namely: no war in the Korean Peninsula; no nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula; peaceful resolution of all issues, including denuclearization of North Korea, through dialogue and negotiations; and commitment to improved inter-Korean relations. With his diplomatic successes, coupled with a strong domestic showing in expanding welfare programs and raising the minimum wage, Moon’s approval rating in the most recent poll is a sky-high 77 percent, making him the most popular leader in the free world.

With skillful maneuvering, Moon has put South Korea in as advantageous a position as possible as it begins talks with North Korea. Despite the fears about Trump’s perceived hawkishness against North Korea, Trump welcomed the inter-Korean talks, as he said in his recent phone conversation with Moon: “America supports President Moon 100 percent.” In addition to resuming normal diplomatic relations with China, Moon did much to win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people, who are beginning to wonder why China needs to continue its troublesome alliance with North Korea. Moon’s low-key breakfast at a regular restaurant in Beijing earned high marks on Chinese social media, prompting the Beijing restaurant to introduce the “Moon Jae-in combo.”

South Korean conservatives, as well as some U.S. ones, fret the Moon administration might be too concessionary in the upcoming talks, as Moon carries the same “soft on North Korea” stigma that has plagued South Korea’s previous liberal presidents. The validity of that stereotype has always been dubious, but to the extent it has any merit, Moon’s biography indicates he would be quite unlike his predecessors. Moon is the son of North Korean refugees, who were rescued out of the port of Wonsan aboard a U.S. Merchant Marine ship. He served his military duty as a special forces paratrooper, at one point participating in Operation Paul Bunyan in 1976, when North Korea and the United States literally came within inches of a war.

Further, what little residual sympathy that South Korean liberals had for North Korea has all but evaporated in recent years, as the Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un regimes continued their threats while showing little sign of reform. Even as the South Korean public overall welcomed North Korea’s decision to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, a strong majority (65 percent) believes such conciliatory gestures don’t mean Kim Jong Un’s attitude has changed in any way.

A closer look at Moon’s actual responses to the provocations puts to rest the notion that he has been soft on North Korea. When North Korea tested a long-range missile in July, Seoul responded with a “decapitation” missile drill designed to show Kim that his leadership would be eliminated if he deployed his arsenal. When North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan in August, Seoul responded with a bomber drill with bunker busters, making the same point as before. In September, Moon and Trump agreed to amend the guidelines preventing South Korea from developing its own ballistic missiles beyond a certain pay load — meaning South Korean missiles will be able to penetrate and destroy North Korea’s underground facilities.

The offers that were made at this week’s talks were small, involving North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in exchange for the limited relaxation of sanctions to enable such participation. Neither side is yet willing to leverage its political capital to offer major concessions that can end the nuclear crisis. So any major breakthrough, at least in this first round, appears unlikely. But regardless of how favorable of a situation Moon creates for South Korea, he cannot possibly risk a nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula — and if Kim is concerned for his own survival, avoidance of a war constrains his choices, too. In the long run, therein will lie the possibility for peace.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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